…he must appear to all who see and hear him to be completely pious, completely faithful, completely honest, completely humane, and completely religious. And nothing is more important than to appear to have that last quality.
And there was Obama– grim faced, nervous, fumbling his words and wearing his American flag pin — letting Romney, confident and aggressive and in control, roll right over him at every turn.
But the God thing clinched it. If Obama wants to win the next debate, he needs to wear God, as much as it offends him to do so, the same way he captured the flag for this one.
On Faith: “Romney Captures the God Vote”
Sally Quinn’s brief, at times infelicitously worded observations on the first Romney-Obama debate have received a broadly contemptuous response. In an influential tweet, Zack Beauchamp of Think Progress, formerly of the Daily Dish, called Quinn’s post “the stupidest thing you’ll read on the debate.” Steve M. of No More Mister Nice Blog stood up for atheists and others he saw as “insulted” by Quinn. As for members of Quinn’s presumable target audience, the religiously inclined blogger Kyle Cupp declared himself stumped in his effort to “think of a more superficial assessment of American religiosity.” His post closes with a recitation from the liberal liturgy: “[I]f this is a free country, as we like to believe, then politicians shouldn’t have to be ‘believers’ to win elections.”
What if, whether or not American politicians should have to be believers, they cannot win without appearing to be? If so, then they will indeed have to “wear God.” To say so might seem cynical, but that conclusion would depend on a set of dubious and criticizeable left-liberal presumptions about the proper relationship of faith and politics, presumptions that may simply cede vital political ground to the other side. In that case, the stupidest thing that Obama and his team could do would be to listen to the likes of Zack Beauchamp, Steve M., and Kyle Cupp.
The criticisms of Quinn by Lee M. at A Thinking Reed elevate the discussion above ridicule, anger, and not very subtly self-contradictory assertions of belief in non-belief. He associates Quinn’s views with “a strain of conservative Christianity that maintains that the U.S. is a ‘Christian nation’ and that secular liberals are always trying to efface this fact.” From there he proceeds to the fundamental political-theological questions, questions that ought to be more important than victory in one or another political fight, even a presidential election:
Ironically, the “God” of Americanist Christianity looks a lot more like a primitive tribal deity than the God of biblical theism. It’s a step backwards toward what H. Richard Niebuhr (and others) have called “henotheism”: a form of faith that “regards the limited group as the center of value, and it values people and things according to how they serve the group’s ends” (as theologian Douglas Ottati summarizes it). In its American variant, God exists to underwrite the American project.
In other words, religion-infused hyperpatriotism constitutes the most fundamental violation of the First Commandment, making the “limited group” into a false God. For Lee M., still following H.R. Niebuhr, this blasphemy also violates the basic American egalitarian ethos precisely where, as a universal rather than parochial standard, it can be connected to religious faith without injustice to either:
[W]hat Niebuhr called “radical monotheism” insists on “equality because all people are equally related to the one universal center of value.” Abraham Lincoln captured the spirit of radical monotheism when he reflected that “the Almighty has His own purposes,” which couldn’t be straightforwardly identified with the cause of the Union or the Confederacy. In the Bible, God’s preferential love for his people (Israel or the church) is tempered by a “prophetic” call to extend that love beyond the bounds of the group.
Lee M. closes his critique with an explicit charge of “idolatry,” but he does so without having considered how these “Americanist Christians” might respond to, or indeed have anticipated, his arguments. In this respect like much less reflective critics, he merely turns away from their position, and by extension from Quinn’s, without actually addressing them.
In short, Americanist Christians, whose assumptions may extend far beyond the religious right, would reject Lee M.’s characterization of their beliefs. Strictly as a matter of logic, their position, which the right takes to be the authentic American position, would be necessarily idolatrous, or “henotheistic,” only under the presumption that Americanism is not or cannot also be an expression or embodiment of Christian universalism. Yet for these believers the two ideas, American and Christian, if properly understood and realized, are mutually reinforcing, complementary, and bi-conditional. For them, and in their view for all of us, Americanism embodies the Christian mission as viewed from a world historical perspective, with an expanding democratic community of free, equally infinitely worthy individuals being the purest implication in social, economic, and political terms of Niebuhr’s radical monotheistic proposition. Ardent American patriotism would in no way require or imply a subordination of the deity to the “limited group,” since it would be a response to divine providence, in support of a universal missionary project.*
This insistence on the actualization via politics of divinely ordained essential or moral equality is also, of course, found clearly enunciated in the Declaration of Independence – as parsed by Romney in the key debate statements cited by Quinn. Romney was asked to describe his views on “the role of government,” and, first referring directly to the debate backdrop, decorated with language from the American covenantal documents, he gave an answer worth reading in full as an example of American political rhetoric. The key lines for our purposes begin after a reference to “that line [from the Declaration] that says we are endowed by our creator with our rights”:
I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country. That statement also says that we are endowed by our creator with the right to pursue happiness as we choose. I interpret that as, one, making sure that those people who are less fortunate and can’t care for themselves are cared by — by one another.
We’re a nation that believes that we’re all children of the same god and we care for those that have difficulties, those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that are disabled. We care for them. And we — we look for discovery and innovation, all these things desired out of the American heart to provide the pursuit of happiness for our citizens.
But we also believe in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals. And what we’re seeing right now is, in my view, a — a trickle-down government approach, which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it’s not working.
Nothing in Romney’s statement should have struck anyone as unusual. Its key terms, including its references to the deity, are staples of American politics, but he masterfully molded them to his and our current purposes, as typified by the obviously planned line on “trickle-down government” and the claim that our difficulties both originate in and effectively are punishment for a betrayal of our founding principles.
Quinn’s critics might respond that it was not the short God-bothering passage in particular, but Romney’s entire debate performance that seemed to defeat the President, but “charisma” is the appearance of divinely conferred talent – put simply, a wearing of God. Quinn’s argument is simply that a successful response will have to comprehend rather than merely deny and avoid the political-theological impulses to which Romney sought to appeal in literal word as well as in self-presentation.
None of these observations ought to imply an endorsement of the politics of the Trinary Covenant** – of an absolute “theodemocratic” commitment to an aggressive and exclusionary Jewish-Christian-American fusion. All the same, anyone competing for electoral victory will have to cope with the material of democracy as found, that is, with the people as they are. In part, Quinn is speaking of a profound desire on the part of the people, and that also means the presidential electorate, to sanctify their political identity – directly, unambiguously, unashamedly.
In general terms, Quinn is much more right than her critics about what the President must do – if he wants to win. On her specific claim, it may not be impossible to win over the electorate without invoking the deity by name, just as it may not be impossible to please a lover without saying “I love you,” or to work magic without a spell, or to meditate without a mantra, but the strain will tend to be evident, will tend to awaken suspicions, and may generally increase the likelihood of failure. Being seen as unwilling or unable to assume the mantle of faith, in faithful service to a faithless left-liberal faith that does not even know it is also a faith, will tend to be disqualifying – that is, unless American elections, debates especially, not merely should be but are grand exercises in ideal public reason after all; unless they are wholly or chiefly determined by the careful comparison of policy prescriptions rationally considered in factually accurate and consistent detail by highly informed and intellectually very highly engaged citizens.
On that basis, we could safely conclude that President Obama destroyed the upstart Mitt Romney in their first debate. By some political alchemy that judgment may someday become supportable. At the moment it is by far the minority position.